Monday, March 02, 2015

A Brush With Immortality: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, And Jackie McLean

Beneath the Spin * Eric L. Wattree

A Brush With Immortality: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and 
Jackie Mclean 

I went to Shelly's Manhole with some older brothers to see Thelonious Monk one night, and I noticed that Monk kept looking over at me as he was playing. It made me nervous because I was under age and I thought he was gonna give me up and tell 'em to kick me out. They already knew me at the clubs around town. I knew damn near every waitress in this city. Sometimes they'd let me stay, and other times they'd kick me out - I never did figure out what made the difference. And they'd never serve me drinks, so I'd have to order something non-alcoholic and bring my own. But I wanted to be accepted as a sophisticated adult more than anything in life, so sometime I'd put the bass in my voice and try to casually order Scotch on the rocks. But the waitress would just look at me sideways like, "You're lucky I'm letting you stay here, so don't push it, buddy."
One or two of the waitresses who'd been around for awhile knew my mother when she was working as a greeter at Dynamite Jackson's, and I think they put the word out on me. So they'd tolerate me, but they just wouldn't let me be the man that I wanted to be so desperately, because I wasn't. It's sort of funny when I look back on it.  Had I been sophisticated enough to know what adulthood actually entailed, I would have been more desperate to hold on to those precious years than was I to become an adult.  
So I just kept coming back and braving the humiliation, because from the time I was 12 years old I loved everything, and everybody, associated with jazz. I got that gene from my father. As I've said many times before, my father thought the only reason the Sun came up was to keep Bird's reeds warm. I had to fight the preacher at his funeral to have Jackie McLean playing "Love and Hate" in the background. I told the preacher if they don't have jazz in Heaven, the Pearly Gates would constitute the entrance to Hell for my father. The irony was, when I was done reading the eulogy that I'd written for my father (Blues For Mr. C), with Jackie Playing softly in the background, that very same preacher came up to me and asked me for a copy of it.

On that particular night, however, after his first set, Monk walked up to me and TOLD me, "Come with me." He took me back to the musician's lounge where Nelly was, and asked, "Who does he remind you of?" And she said, "TOOTIE!" - Monk's son.
He saw me as a young wide-eyed joke, and I was. I was 16 and on a roll (I had just seen John Coltrane a couple of weeks earlier). Monk asked me, "What you know about jazz, boy?" And I started telling him about all the urban legends that I'd heard about him. As he was listening intently to one of my stories he asked me, "Damn! What did I do then!!!?"  You have to know how Monk was to know why I look back on that as being so funny, because he was dead serious. He got into the story like I was telling him a story about someone else. I never did find out whether the story was true or not.  But When I was done, he told his wife, Nelly, "Shit, he knows more about me than I do," and they started laughin' their asses off.
I spent that entire night with them, because I was so young that Nelly was worried that I was gonna be picked up by one of those,"Hollywood perverts." Monk told Nelly, "Shit,who you should be worried about is Blank" - his drummer (I''m not gonna give his name because he's famous and he's never been outed as gay).  But for the rest of the night I sat in the front row next to Nelly, and after the gig I went to their hotel room with them and we grubbed and talked.  I told him how I planned on becoming a great saxophone player someday, and I  asked him everything I could think of about Bird. I remember him telling me, "Naw, you don't want to be Bird, unless you like bein' broke. How much money you got?"  I had about five dollars in my pocket. And he said, "Shit, you already richer than Bird was half the time,"  and then started laughin'.  Nelly said, "Don't say that, T!"  They dropped me off at my mother's door just as the Sun was coming up.  It was a night I will never forget.
After that episode, the OGs made me a celebrity in the hood. I've never had that much attention before, or since. I had attracted the interest of THELONIOUS MONK.  EVERYBODY wanted to know EVERY detail of what went down, and every detail about Monk that they could get - everybody, including Jimmy, the brilliant dope fiend that my father had hired to teach me to play the saxophone.  There are a lot of details that I've left out of this story, and I remember every detail like it happened last night, but I do intend to write about it, and every nuance of that great man in the most minute detail in the near future, because it's of historic significance. People STILL don't realize how great that man was. You can listen to "Ruby My Dear," or "Round Midnight," and they constitute a MASTER'S CLASS on what contemporary music is all about. I could appreciate that even back then. So I thank God that I had the sense to know that I was in the presence of immortality.
I also intend to write about an entire New Years weekend that I spent with Dexter Gordon during the 70s. He grew up two blocks from my mother and they both went to Jefferson High School here in Los Angeles. She graduated; he went on the road with Lionel Hampton at 17 years old. During that weekend Dex made a passing comment regarding how I idolized him that ended up becoming the guiding philosophy of my life - "Learn to become your own hero, because you're the only one who won't let you down." He also  told me, "Whenever you hear me play a lick, your very first thought should be about how you could go about playing it better." He was right, and that was the key to his greatness. Lester Young was his main man, and you could hear Lester in him, but he wasn't Lester - he was Dexter, and nobody did it better. But he was wrong about one thing. He never did let me down.  He blew the lights out until his very last breath. But I've taken him at his word, nevertheless, and he became my last hero. That's turned me into a severe cynic over the years, and that very cynicism has been of tremendous value to me as a writer.  I don't trust the word of nobody, so I start off every piece I write by probing for lies.
A Swingin' Affair

Was told as a child
Blacks had no worth,
Not a nickel’s worth of dimes.
I believed that myth
‘Til Dex rode in
With his ax
In double time.
Horn was soarin’,
The changes flyin’,
His rhythm right on time;
My heart
Beat with the pleasure
Of new found pride,
His blood
Flowed through mine.
Took the chords
The keyboard played,
And danced around each note;
Then shuffled ‘em
Like a deck of cards,
And didn’t miss a stroke.
B minor 7 with flatted 5th,
A half diminished chord,
He substituted a lick in D,
Then really began to soar.
He tipped his hat
To Charlie Parker,
And quoted
Trane with Miles,
Then paid his homage to
Thelonious Monk,
In Charlie Rouse's style.
He took
A Scrapple From The Apple,
Then went to Billie’s Bounce,
The rhythm section, now on fire,
But he didn’t budge an ounce.
He just
Dug right in
To shuffle again,
This time
A Royal Flush;
Then lingered a bit
Behind the beat,
Still smokin’
But in no rush.
Then he
Doubled the time
Just like this rhyme,
In fluid 16th notes,
Charlie and Lester,
"Your baby boy, Dexter’s,
On top of the
Bebop you wrote."
Like a banshee,
This prince of saxophone,
His ballads dripped of honey,
His Arpeggios were strong.
Callin’ on his idles,
Ghost of Pres’
Within in the isles,
Smiling at his protege,
At the peak of this new style.
His tenor
Drenched of Blackness,
And all the things we are -
Of pain, and pleasure,
And creative greatness
Until his final bar.

So we've been blessed, Playthell, and I intend to share that blessing, just as you have with your piece on the Duke. We're old schoolers. We've had the opportunity to be up close and personal with the kind of greatness that this world may never see again. So we have an obligation to share it, because after us, it will be lost forever.
Did I ever become that great saxophone player that I told Monk that was going to become?  No. Because I never reached the caliber that I demanded of myself, and I wasn't raised to be a member of the dime-a-dozen club. I'd rather entertain myself in my bedroom and DREAM about being great than just being "one of the boys." If you can't be the best, it ain't worth doing. But sometimes, on a good day, Dex will step in and help me to make my eyes moist. I live for those days, when I don't think theory, notes, or chord progressions; when I just close my eyes and pour out my soul. Those days, as fleeting as they are, are good enough for me.
So while I still love playing my horn, I became a writer instead, because that's what I seem to do best - and as a writer, at least I can edit for quality as I go along; but as a musician, once it's played, it's out there. That's what makes jazz such a brilliant art form, the demand that it places on its musicians to compose their own compositions on the spot, based on some of the most intricate rhythms and chord progressions in music. It literally DEMANDS of it's practitioners a form of artistic genius. Thus, when I can substantiate my passions, I put them in the form of an essay. When I can't substantiate what I feel, I express my impressions through poetry. But during those times when I'm feeling the kind of passion that I can't express in words, only then, do I pickup my horn.
But 52nd Street is always tugging at my heart, because that's who I am. Many people who are long gone now put in a lot of work over the years to see to it, so I always live with a sense of letting them down. There are two brothers playing all over the world today who I taught to HOLD the saxophone, to play their chromatic scale, and who I taught the musical theory behind  ii, V, Is ( you musicians will know what I'm talking about), and frankly, that brings me much pain. I feel displaced. I wasn't born to be Langston Hughes; I was born to be Bird, so even if I became lauded as the greatest writer who ever lived, I still wouldn't be able to escape that pain. But my problem has always been that I was TOO well schooled in jazz, and at much too early an age, so I've never been able to appreciate baby steps, as every good musician should. Instead of taking pride in how far I'd come, I'd listen to Dex, Jackie, or Trane and agonize over how far I had to go; and instead being thrilled at how well I could play "Misty," I'd be depressed at how sluggish I was at playing Bird's "Anthropology." That's a curse.  But my blessing is, unlike most people who hear something they like and say, I'm going to go buy that, I can say, I'm going home and play that. Oh yes, I can play any tune, and in any key - Gb is just like C to me - but from the time I was a child, I've always known what it meant to be a GREAT musician, and I'm just not there . . . yet.
Show 'em what I mean, Dexter, Jackie.


Jackie Mclean
When Jackie McLean first appeared on the scene he swung it like nobody else;
He stood all alone, with that bittersweet tone, owing nobody, only himself.
With his furious attack he could take you back to the beauty of Yardbird’s song,
but that solemn moan made it all his own, as burning passion flowed lush from his horn.
Hearing “Love and Hate” made Jazz my fate, joyous anguish dripped blue from his song. He both smiled and cried and dug deep-down inside, until the innocence of my childhood was gone.

As I heard this new sound, and embraced the profound, childish eyes now saw as a man; 
I stood totally perplexed, but I couldn’t step back, from the hunger of my mind to expand. I saw Charlie and Lester, and a smiling young Dexter, as I peered into Jackie’s sweet horn; 
 it was a place that I knew, though I’d never been to, but a place that I now call my home.


That's jazz. That's greatness. That's world-class excellence and what it means to be Black, and we should never forget that.

Eric L. Wattree
Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

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